Hard to ignore proven pedigree of Cheltenham's hardy annuals
The key to the Arkle is to find a high-class hurdler with a demonstrable aptitude for fences. The problem this year is that the number of runners with a hurdle rating of 142-plus is greater than many other years, and each of the front four in the betting is unbeaten when staying upright.
The volume of abandonments this winter means collateral formlines are thin and it is Leopardstown's Grade One at Christmas that provides the biggest foundation for the market's pecking order. There is little doubt that day that Captain Cee Bee would have obliged had he not capitulated at the last. Equally there is little doubt that Sizing Europe was in nothing like top form as his jumping lacked the fluency of his previous efforts.
At their best I believe both have the raw ability to win the Arkle but at the prices, and suspecting Sizing Europe to be the safer conveyance, my money is with the de Bromhead horse to lay the ghost of an abject run in the Champion Hurdle two years ago.
Verdict: Sizing Europe
This year's Champion is a wide open affair with ten of the 15 entries rated within 7lbs. Go Native is the form horse having beaten many of the other principals already this season. Largely ignored until recently, he was in danger of becoming the forgotten horse and now he is favourite.
I have fancied Zaynar all season and while disappointed with his Kelso run, I don't think you can take it literally. I am more concerned at the drying ground for him over the distance and reluctantly pass him over. Another to pass him over is Barry Geraghty in favour of stablemate Punjabi, which has been slowly coming to peak all season. As reigning champion, he was patently short of his best all season, although always travelling like the real good horse he is. He had a useful blow at Kempton in his prep run and will be timed to the minute by Henderson under his ideal conditions on Tuesday.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
The pivotal point to this race is which Master Minded will turn up? If it's Master Minded 2008, then they should just hand over the trophy. If it's last year's version, then we've got a contest.
Big Zeb has got lots of ability but the only two times he's been to England he has jumped poorly. Twist Magic jumps superbly but has had a Cheltenham phobia the last two years and is ideally suited by the unique demands of Sandown.
Last year's Arkle was a weak renewal to my mind and whilst Kalahari King is a very likeable and probably still a progressive horse, I would doubt he would ever reach the stature of MM 2008. I thought Forpadydeplasterer was decent value a week ago at 14/1 but is about right now.
So which Master Minded to expect? To my eyes he travelled supremely all the way in the Game Spirit with none of the hanging or fence hesitation that had featured frequently in the last 12 months. On that basis, even money seems a fair price.
Verdict: Master Minded
Another Henderson quandary and yet another novice chase with no less than six of the principals unbeaten over fences. Long Run may well be of freak ability, but his jumping -- especially in the Feltham where winners have a hopeless record -- leaves me looking for alternatives at the price.
The ground might be too lively for Diamond Harry and the same may apply to Weird Al. Previous Festival scorer Weapon's Amnesty has possibilities but his jumping has been suspect at times this season while Burton Port and The Nightingale may just lack the class.
Punchestowns has been favourite for this contest all year and was only displaced when found lame the other day. Yet now that he's straight and sound he hasn't been restored. His trainer would ideally have liked to get another run into him but how he recovered from the downhill slip at Sandown to reel in Tchico Polo was mighty impressive. A class act at a backable price.
Arguably the most competitive Grade One of the four days, one could make a legitimate case for a number of the runners. Tranquil Sea was a mighty impressive winner of the Paddy Power in November and bids to emulate Imperial Commander, which did the Power/Ryanair double last year. Poquelin looks tailor-made for this given the ground and his impressive win in the Boylesports in December.
All five previous winners of the Ryanair had won at Cheltenham, again underlining the importance of course form at this specialist track. A live outsider in my view is Voy Por Ustedes which has had excuses for each run this year and didn't jump at all well when just going under last season in this race.
Fondmort and Our Vic had both finished second the previous season before their success in this, and I understand Voy Por (which started 4/5 in this last year) worked well in blinkers on Wednesday at Alan King's.
There is obviously a chance Voy Por is gone but he is a spring horse, his Festival record reads 1122 and at 16/1 it's worth the risk.
Verdict: Voy Por Ustedes (ew)
It is interesting how the staying division of late has thrown up supremely talented individuals which have dominated the sphere. Baracouda, Iris's Gift and Inglis Drever all rated higher than the Champion Hurdle winner and instead of a lull, along comes Big Buck's last season with the prospect of becoming the equal of any of the aforementioned.
If he is to be, then he will have to win on Thursday, and because there is practically no visible chink in his armour I find him impossible to reasonably oppose.
However, from a betting perspective, a better proposition is Tidal Bay in the market without the favourite. Arkle winners don't routinely tend to revert to hurdles and win World Hurdles, but I suppose Big Buck's nearly won a Hennessy before stumbling on his true calling. Tidal Bay reverted to win the Cleeve Hurdle in the absence of Big Buck's in January, a race that has provided the last three winners at the Festival. Furthermore, Tidal Bay will be much better suited to the drier conditions this time and is facing weaker opposition than usual outside the favourite. His Cheltenham record reads 12211341.
Verdict: Tidal Bay (without Big Buck's)
Ten-year-olds don't win the Gold Cup as a rule but it is long odds-on either Kauto Star or Denman will buck the trend.
Both have posted personal bests this season -- upending normal ten-year-old behaviour -- and their sheer class puts the Nicholls pair head and shoulders above their rivals. But whereas Kauto was the best he's ever been last time in the King George, Denman was close to his worst with some seriously erratic jumping in the straight, reminding us of his Aintree aberration last April.
I expect Kauto to win emphatically and wouldn't be surprised if Denman failed to deliver at all. Both Imperial Commander and Cooldine are primed to produce a personal best next Friday and I could see both running exceptionally well.
I expect Cooldine to really appreciate the extended trip and his majestic RSA win last year is a handy asset as proven Grade One course form where he jumped immaculately. Imperial's trump card is his course form and his record after a break of seven weeks or more which reads 1111112 -- with the '2' being the nose he was beaten by Kauto at Haydock. With a niggling stamina doubt about Imperial for me, Cooldine gets the vote for the forecast.
Verdict: Kauto Star
For such a fiercely competitive big field handicap, it is remarkable that 30 of the last 35 winners have started at no bigger than 10/1. The best bit of business you can do for the entire Festival is back the Paul Nicholls/Ruby Walsh runner now and trade out before the start of the race.
Nicholls has provided the favourite in five of the last six years, winning twice and finishing second twice. The last two seasons have seen his favourites Saintsaire (2008) and Poquelin (2009) backed to prohibitively short odds only for their jumping to let them down in the race.
This year's Ditcheat dynamo is Tataniano which was cunningly camouflaged in the Arkle right up to the six-day declarations. He is a brilliant jumper (unlike his predecessors), is already a course winner, is fairly handicapped and the horse they are backing against him in the market (Salut Flo from David Pipe's) is about a million to get into the race as No 56 on the list in a maximum 24 field. Around 7/1 now, he will be half those odds at best at the off. Best till last?